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A man talking on a cellphone while driving a red convertible.

Drivers can be fined up to $250 in some states for talking on the phone while driving.

Cell phone use and driving

Published on July 25, 2005

We've all heard the adage, "Don't drink and drive." Should emphasis also be given to "Don't talk on the phone and drive?" According to a new study at the University of Minnesota, talking on the phone while driving is more likely to impair your ability to drive safely than if you were drunk.

To examine how performance impairment from cell-phone use compared to other types of impairment risks, such as driving while intoxicated and while operating common in-vehicle controls like a radio, fan, or air conditioning, the researchers sat several people behind a driving simulator and outfitted each of them with a device to measure brain activity. Half of the study participants were also given generous amounts of vodka with cranberry juice so they would reach near-intoxicating levels, or just under .08 blood alcohol content. The researchers also looked at the combined effects of being distracted and being intoxicated.

"[In our study] the drunk driver doing nothing was less impaired than the same person on a cell phone or playing with the radio," says Nic Ward, principal investigator and director of the U's HumanFIRST Program.

Cell phones in the U.S.

* In 2004, the number of cell phone users in the United States grew 13.7 percent, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. Today, there are more than 180 million wireless telephone subscribers.

* New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia require drivers to use a hands-free device when talking on a phone while driving. Drivers can face fines of up to $250 for failing to comply with the law.

Previous studies by other researchers have shown that the increased mental demand of cell-phone use causes impairment--and an increased risk of crashes. Because past research has shown that hands-free cell-phone use is no safer than hand-held use, Ward and his team decided to focus on the cognitive aspect of talking on a cell phone.

"It's actually the conversational component of operating a cell phone while driving that is the culprit," says Ward, "not just the physical manipulation of a phone."

Ward believes there is a need to enforce legal sanctions on cell-phone use, but he emphasizes the importance of driver education in understanding the risks and knowing when it's safe to engage in secondary tasks.

"Banning cell phones isn't the solution," he says. "It's the appropriate use of cell phones."

In phase II of this two-part study--meant to probe the risks of using cell phones to access new, advanced traveler-information systems recently introduced in many states (for example, 511 Traveler Information Services)--the researchers will test how impairment from traveler-information interactions compares to other types of cell-phone use, such as conversation.

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